Following a link to a TED talk I got to listen to a Buddhist monk named Matthieu Ricard talk about altruism in regards to not just how we treat each other (which is what I was expecting after seeing the title) but also about the health of the Earth and how we treat it, which came as a welcome surprise. In case someone does not know what "altruism" means the definition a quick Google brings up is "the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others." Or as Ricard simply puts it, "it is the wish: may others be happy and find the cause of happiness." It was an interesting thing to listen to, very enlightening and leaves a person with a very positive feeling. Though I may have felt that way because I already believed a lot of what Ricard was saying. An altruistic perspective should be aimed towards not only other human beings, but also towards other species and the world that we live on. The way the man speaks is also fascinating on a more linguistic level, flowing easily between talking about altruism in regards to people and the environment, as if the two were interconnected in a way that could not be ignored. To some though, the two are not things that can be separated. Some people see the act of caring for the Earth as caring for future generations. This line of thinking had never really occurred to me until this philosophy class. Of course we should take care of the Earth because we really only have the one at this point, but to take care of it for the future generations had never explictily occurred to me. Odd, now that I think about it.
Being altruistic towards people and towards the world are different in some ways. Being kind to people, is for the most, part fairly easy. If you just wait around long enough chances are that eventually an opportunity to be kind to someone will just fall in your lap. Being kind to another person can be as simple as doing someone a good turn. I've even heard of instances where doing someone who was at the end of their rope a small kindness saved their life. However, a simple "good turn" is not really enough to save the planet. Being kind to the Earth is harder is harder than being kind to humans. It takes work-- constant, active work that usually involves a little more effort than just sitting around and waiting until an opportunity shows up to do some good.
This is not to discredit the small efforts though. Every little bit helps, and a little bit is often only what some people are capable of doing. That said, I once saw someone on the internet write a post about how it isn't the individual's fault that the planet is dying, that what pollution individual people and families cause is nothing in comparison to businesses and factories and that those are the things we need to be focusing on. While I suppose these are the kinds of sentiments that could breed excuses, I do think that they are correct in so much that corporations are the cause of majority of the pollution and that the pollution laws need to be changed for the betterment of the planet and not for the betterment of company owner's wallets.
But I digress, the planetary altruism that Ricard is talking about does not seem to just be about the individual or the corporations. Of course, he does talk about the individual making an active effort in changing how they think but he also brings up societal changes. It is not only about individuals or only about businesses, but everyone collectively. Everyone should make the effort to change, to care a little more about others, and not just the others of the present. Ricard says in his talk that he once heard Steve Forbes ask "Why should I care about future generations? What have they ever done for me?" Ricard believes that this is not the right way to be thinking about the subject, that it is a selfish way to see the issue, and I agree. In fact I would say that it is the exact opposite way to look at the issue of environmental problems. To reword a popular phrase: ask not what future generations can do for you, ask what you can do for future generations.
Ricard continues quoting Steve Forbes with another line: "I find it absurd to change my behavior today for something that will happen in a hundred years." Aside from the fact that I think that this is an absurd way to look at the oceans rising (which was the issue that Forbes was referring to), I think that this is an example of the selfishness that Ricard mentions throughout his talk. It is this selfishness that bothRicard and I think we need to try to avoid. We as people need to try to start seeing the bigger picture. Not just automatically going with what immediately satisfies us or just going with the easiest or cheapest solutions to questions. We should try to start cultivating what Ricard says we need: cooperation, sustainable harmony (as opposed to sustainable growth), caring economics, a local commitment and a global responsibility.
Typing up the list of things Mattieu Ricard says that we need to be a more altruistic society makes you realize just how much of a challenge it seems to be. There is quite a bit that he thinks people need to start develping in themselves and in their society for us to become more altruistic. Change is hard though, especially the sort of change Ricard is talking about. I think that we already know it is hard- if it were easy we would have started doing these things on a large scale decades ago! Difficult does not mean impossible though. I certainly believe that with effort anyone can become a better, more caring, more altruistic person. In one of the last moments of his speech, Ricard says the best way to think of this; he says that "sentient beings are co-citizens in the world." This is how more people need to look at their fellow humans, and not just humans but other creatures that inhabit the Earth too. Do not just see them as other people and other species, but as co-citizens of this Earth, beings that we share this planet with and together we will share it with the generations to come. The altruistic revolution he mentions will not be achieved by everyone working alone. What starts out as personal growth and change leads to bigger changes. Individual change can lead to cultural change, and that will lead to us being able to shift into a society that cares more about the things that are going to occur one hundred years after we are gone. We will not question what the latter generations can do for us but what we, here in the present, can do for them.
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First Installment Link
Why Philosophy Class Scared Me: Installment #1
This I Believe: Life is about Love